An Iraqi city becomes turnaround story

Despite violence, including a nearby attack Saturday, Baquba sees improvement.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Last January, Baquba was symbol of everything going wrong in Iraq - and its neighborhood of Buhritz was a symbol for everything going wrong in Baquba.

This city just 50 miles north of Baghdad was crawling with Sunni Arab mortar teams, snipers, and bombmakers. They had made parts of the city their own, killing police when they found them and driving the rest into hiding. Their grip was so strong that only 60 percent of the region's polling places opened for Iraq's first post-Saddam election. In Buhritz, not a vote was cast; some polling sites were torched.

But today, US commanders are pointing to Baquba as a symbol of what might go right. Every polling place stayed open all day for the Oct. 15 referendum that approved Iraq's new constitution earlier this month. Violence was light, while voter turnout was high.

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While Sunnis, Shiites, and ethnic Kurds of the city all have different visions of Iraq's future, and bombs like the one that killed at least 30 civilians Saturday in a town near here are still common, Baquba is a reminder that at least short-term security gains are being made in many Iraqi cities, particularly ones outside volatile Anbar Province.

Asked why, Lt. Col. Rob Risberg, commander of the 1st Battalion of the Army's 10th Field Artillery Regiment, scratches his head, then says it hasn't been rocket science. "The Iraqi Army and the Iraqi police have really come along - they can handle most of what comes their way now,'' says Colonel Risberg, from DeLeon Springs, Fla. "We're here to back them up, but I think we're seeing the benefits of getting cops on almost every street corner."

There have also been heavy doses of force. In June, Buhritz - a tough neighborhood where kids swim in a murky, trash-strewn irrigation canal fed from the nearby Diyala River - was almost a no-go zone for Risberg's men. They didn't come down except in force, and even then were almost certain to be shot at.

Then on June 17, Lt. Noah Harris of Dawsonville, Ga., and Cpl. William Long of Lillburn, Ga., were killed when their humvee was hit by a roadside bomb in the area, and Risberg decided he'd had enough. "That was the straw that broke the camel's back," he says, pointing to the crater left by that earlier bomb as he rolled through Buhritz with just a three-humvee convoy.

The Army shut down the area for six weeks - basically letting no one in and no one out - and began major sweeps through the area. Risberg said the operation had a twofold objective: To capture fighters in the area and to persuade residents not to support them.

Risberg was helped by Capt. Bobby Ray Toon, from Grannies Neck, Texas, who was directly responsible for Buhritz. In the Army as an enlisted man for 18 years, he recently attended officer candidate school and was put in charge of a company of about 150 men. His experience made it easier for him to make the right calls in dealing with local civilians, problems that take as much political as military savvy.

Each time an attack originated in the area, Risberg would have a nearby palm grove shelled, sometimes as often as every 15 minutes the whole night. He'd also further restrict residents' movement. "We were trying to show them that you're going to help us clean up this area or you're going to pay the price,'' he explains. "I didn't care which."

When local families complained that the shelling frightened their kids, he'd tell them to help hand over insurgents - only then would the shelling stop. They also replaced the local mayor and the town council, who seemed sympathetic to the insurgency. Eventually, he and others in his battalion say, the approach got results.

On election day this month, turnout topped 60 percent as Iraqi police maintained a heavy presence. US soldiers stayed in the background.

At the same time, more Iraqi police came onboard. "A lot of progress has been made in building up the Iraqi police,'' says Col. Steve Salazar, Commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat team, under which Risberg's men serve. "That's the key to getting us out of here - handing more and more over to Iraqis."

Diyala Province has one of the longest-running joint command centers. "It's the cornerstone of our program here," says Major Warren. Iraqi police and soldiers mingle with their US counterparts, tracking recent insurgent tactics and making plans.

To be sure, training local forces and putting the heat on insurgents has been the US game plan across Iraq. In some places, like Baquba, it's found partial success, while in others it's generally been a failure, as in much of Anbar Province, home to Fallujah and Ramadi.

The US has a better chance of success in cities like Baquba, which grew up along a tributary of the Tigris River, than in Anbar. Anbar's population centers lie along the Euphrates River, a key transit point for trade and ideas into Iraq.

The Euphrates flows out of parts of Syria that are influenced by the austere and heavily religious Salafy school of Islam. Euphrates river towns tend to be much more religious than their Tigris neighbors. So while towns like Baquba and Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's home-town, are filled with supporters of the old regime, their relatively more secular outlooks leads to a less fanatical commitment to resistance.

How long the peace will hold in Baquba is unclear, as the city has been pacified before. Driving through Buhritz, Risberg points to the bustling Mufrak police station, a citadel-like building that was overrun by insurgents last November but had recently been reoccupied. It was the second time that had happened. In June 2004, insurgents took the station, killing 13 people, seven of them police officers.

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